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Turkey: Cheney Departs Without Public Support For Action Against Iraq

U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney departed Turkey today, winding up a 10-day European and Middle Eastern tour that took him to 12 different countries. The main purpose of the trip was to sound out regional countries on additional steps in the U.S.-led war on terrorism, but the U.S. vice president failed to gain public support for tough action against Iraq.

Prague, 20 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Vice President Cheney left Ankara today after talks with Turkish officials that reportedly focused on the situation in Afghanistan and Washington's next possible move in the global war against terrorism.

Cheney, who arrived yesterday from Jerusalem, met President Ahmed Necdet Sezer, Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, and Foreign Minister Ismail Cem. The U.S. envoy also held separate talks with Army Chief of Staff, General Huseyin Kivrikoglu.

Cheney's 24-hour visit to Ankara concluded a 12-nation tour mostly aimed at securing regional support for Washington's campaign against terrorism. Before Turkey, the U.S. vice president had visited Britain, Jordan, Egypt, Yemen, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, and Israel.

Cheney's visit apparently produced few concrete results. Today's press conference, scheduled some time ago by Turkish authorities, was canceled at the last moment. Although U.S. officials cited a tight schedule to justify the cancellation, the decision raised speculation in the Turkish media of possible disagreements, notably on the Iraq issue.

Turkish officials were expected to once again convey their opposition to any military action against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Washington accuses Iraq of producing weapons of mass destruction. The U.S. administration demands that Iraq allow experts appointed by the United Nations to inspect suspected biological and chemical weapons production sites and storage facilities, or face tough action.

U.S. President George W. Bush accuses Iraq of supporting international terrorism as part of an "axis of evil" that also includes Iran and North Korea. U.S. officials have been trying to convince Middle Eastern countries they are under a permanent threat from the Iraqi regime. Yet, during a European Union summit in March in Barcelona, Ecevit said Iraq is "under strict control" and "unable to inflict any harm to its neighbors."

Speaking to reporters last night, Ecevit said Cheney assured him there are no current plans for military action against Iraq: "No, there is no such decision at present. Mr. Cheney particularly stressed that a military operation against Iraq is not on the agenda in the foreseeable future. He stated that very clearly."

NATO-member Turkey has been a valuable partner in the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan but is resolutely opposed to any military strike against Iraq. Ankara, which is trying to overcome a 16-month-old economic crisis, claims such an attack would jeopardize Ecevit's efforts to rescue the country's finances.

Turkish officials say the 1991 Gulf War and international trade sanctions imposed on Baghdad at the time have cost Ankara some $40 billion in lost revenues. Since the end of that conflict, Turkey has sought to restore economic ties with Iraq. Last year, the two countries' trade volume reached about $1 billion, compared to an average annual $2.5 billion before the conflict.

Turkey is also concerned that U.S. military action against the Iraqi regime might re-ignite armed separatism in its mostly Kurdish southeastern provinces, which border Iraq.

In February, Ecevit wrote a letter to Saddam Hussein, urging the Iraqi leader to allow UN inspectors back into his country to avert possible U.S. military action. However, on 8 February, he reported no change in Hussein's stance.

Ecevit yesterday said Turkey still hopes that Baghdad will eventually comply with Washington's demands: "We do insist that Iraq comply with the United Nations resolutions and open its doors for inspection. As you know, I wrote a letter to Saddam Hussein in which I clearly outlined my views on this issue. I hope that Iraq will meet the expectations of the international community. We hope that it will. As I said, there is no question of a U.S. military action at the moment or in the foreseeable future."

Cheney also held discussions with Turkish officials on the future of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan (ISAF). Britain, which took the leadership of the 4,500-strong force in December last year, wants an agreement on its successor to be reached before its mandate expires in June.

Turkey, which has some 260 troops on the ground, has long been tipped to take over the leadership. But it hesitates to commit itself, citing concerns about the scope of the international force's mandate. Ecevit's cabinet also wants assurances that the international community will share the financial burden implied by such an operation.

Finally, Turkish officials have expressed concern at the recent upsurge of violence in eastern Afghanistan, saying ISAF should remain under the protection of U.S. troops stationed in the country.

American and British representatives held talks with Turkish officials recently in Ankara, but no agreement has been reached. Ecevit said yesterday Cheney had assured him that the U.S. Congress might grant Ankara a multimillion-dollar package to help it assume the command of ISAF.

"As a positive gesture, the government of the United States will submit tomorrow a motion to the Congress for a $228 million contribution to Turkey. I believe this will be a contribution for our expenses in Afghanistan," Ecevit said.

Before leaving Ankara, Cheney said that, out of this $228 million, $28 million should go directly to pay for Turkey's leadership of the force, with the remaining $200 million going to other, as-yet-unspecified economic needs.

Cheney reported some progress in negotiations over the ISAF command. But he declined to elaborate, saying simply that the international force would be confined to the Afghan capital, Kabul, and its immediate surroundings, and that American troops would remain in the country for "some additional period of time."